Criterion Project #41: M (1931)


Spine #30

Year: 1931

Director: Fritz Lang

The letter “M” was certainly never the same after this movie came out, right?

*Taps mic*

Alright, that was just a little warm-up joke. I can recall seeing M very early in my adventure through foreign and art cinema. In fact it was probably one of the earliest Criterion discs I rented from Netflix back in 17th century when mail rental was the preferred method of media delivery. Like any burgeoning cinephile, those early films really stuck with me. I had the 3-disc-at-a-time plan because I was plowing through so many movies, but I vividly remember watching stuff like Andrei Rublev, Seven Samurai, Port of Shadows, M, and Le Grande Illusion, to name a few, in those early waves of red envelopes. Admittedly, I watched those films so early in my film discovery days that I feel compelled to watch them again as a totally different viewer.

Because that’s basically what happened with M. I could recall the general premise, some of the famous imagery, and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, but I didn’t remember the thematic elements. It’s funny watching a movie so far from when you first saw it, it’s like two different people viewing the movie through the same glasses. Only now those glasses have 20 more years of scratches and scuffs mucking up the view.

But I digress.

The plot involves a city-wide manhunt for a child killer in Berlin. It’s my understanding that this is the first film to ever feature a serial killer, and this particular killer is played by film legend Peter Lorre. I don’t usually discuss acting in these posts but I have to give kudos to Lorre’s performance. He really imbues the character with sorely needed empathy that makes or breaks the movie. Truly wonderful work here.

The early sections of the film revolve around police efforts to catch the madman and the torment this murderer is inflicting on the families who worry about their kids’ safety. It’s here where we find out the killer’s modus operandi: he scouts an unescorted child, buys them a balloon/candy or something like that, and then goes in for the kill. Director Fritz Lang is one of my favorite directors of all time and here he really punctuates the depravity of the crimes with some nightmarish images.

In a movie with numerous iconic scenes, I think the best sequence is the stalking of Elsie Beckmann. Not only does it feature some of the best visuals, but it’s genuinely creepy and the scene has a major impact on the movie as a whole. Early in the film, Lang introduces us to a happy little Elsie, who’s having the time of her life bouncing her ball down the sidewalk and off a wanted poster offering big money to anyone to can find the child killer still on the loose. As we read the wanted poster we’re reminded of Elsie’s presence by seeing her ball bounce in and out of frame off the top of the poster. Before long a shadow is cast over the sign and a figure leans in with chilling words “What a pretty ball you have there. What’s your name?”

That’s the last we’ll see Elsie. But we don’t see her fate, so at first her doom isn’t necessarily a forgone conclusion. At least not until we see her ball sadly rolling to a stop in the dirt and her balloon silently grasping at telephone lines far above the reach of little Elsie’s hand. In lieu of visualizing or even providing audible evidence of the crime, Lang returns to these objects and their twisted reality as a result of the attack on Elsie. When we first saw the ball and the balloon they were both signifiers of happiness, especially in children. They put a smile on Elsie’s face. But in wake of her murder, Lang cuts back to these objects which now signify sadness and loss. Masterful storytelling from one of the greatest.

The sequence is punctuated by a final glimpse of Elsie’s empty seat at the dinner table, with her poor, worried mother unable to comprehend what happened to her little girl. These images go far beyond presenting this crime as an evil act, it draws out the terror, paranoia, and heartbreak associated with it, too. There’s a sense the film is beginning to make an argument that will play out much later in the movie.

In the aftermath of Elsie’s murder, the police spread their resources as wide as they can to try to catch the killer. They fall under heavy public scrutiny when the killer mails a letter to the newspaper taunting that he’s not done doing his dastardly deeds. All of this serves to ramp up the pressure on the police force to the highest level, and before long they begin to get desperate. They start nightly raiding all of the disreputable joints in town, places where the organized criminal element tend to spend their time.

Lost in all of this is a subtle hint here and there of a killer who isn’t all monster and menace. I like how the film deals with the concept of a serial killer in a very contemporary way. They make him an unassuming character who lives a normal life outside of their criminal activity. This killer is a template for the mal-adjusted, disillusioned loner we see in movies like Joker (2019). We see him dealing with his demons, even if it’s only for a moment or two. The movie takes a more neutral position by showing us brief displays of the killer’s mental illness. This stands in contrast to the bigoted minds of law enforcement, who instead turn their efforts to harassing career criminals and mobsters, who surely must contain a child killer within their ranks. Once a criminal, always a criminal. The cops bust into these establishments, line everyone up, ask for their papers, and those who don’t have them are brought down to the precinct. Rinse. Repeat.

While I can’t credit the police for pushing these mobsters in the right direction, the incessant harassment does eventually wear them down enough that they decide they’re going to track down this killer themselves. He’s mucking up their business as long as police are still performing raids in search of this guy. So they pool their resources together and form a unit with a goal and solid communication, something the police sorely lack.

I don’t want to spoil anything but what comes of this mystery isn’t a judgement of right or wrong, it’s a moral debate on the rights of the mentally ill and how they could and/or should be held responsible for their actions. I mentioned earlier that the film was formulating an argument for later in the movie, and it does this throughout. Every portion of the narrative offers a differing viewpoint on the climactic dilemma. When you sat down with the German film about a child killer from 1931 you probably didn’t expect there to be a gray area to wiggle through, now did you? And that’s one of the beauties of the watching these terrific older movies. There’s more to them than you might originally think. The end of this one is an all-timer. So happy to re-visit it.

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